IN an unusual development, the Army and Air Force chiefs along with the Navy vice chief (who represented the Navy chief since the latter is on a scheduled official visit overseas) deposed before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to present their views on a recent Comptroller and Auditor-General report. The report had severely criticised the Services over the functioning of their unit-run canteens, the lack of transparency in the accounting methods, and the issue of supply of dry rations to troops. The decision that the Service chiefs would depose before the parliamentary committee came after the PAC sought answers from the Ministry of Defence, which in turn wrote to the Service chiefs.
This marks a significant departure from the existing practice of only the defence secretary and other senior bureaucrats deposing before parliamentary committees. The armed forces have largely been kept insulated from parliamentary oversight committees since the country’s political executive and the defence ministry’s bureaucrats maintain complete civilian control and supremacy over the armed forces. But the question arises whether the Service chiefs have been nudged into deposing before the PAC more out of expediency and convenience of the bureaucrat-dominated defence ministry, or whether this is an isolated incident, or, still, whether this is a sign of change in which the Service chiefs will, while being held directly accountable, henceforth also be assigned greater authority and responsibility.
Unlike advanced democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom where the Services form part of the decision making process and are thus institutionally required to testify before their respective senate and parliamentary committees, the Indian Service chiefs are treated as department heads with limited financial powers and severely curtailed decision making powers. Yesterday’s development has rekindled the debate on civil-military relations in the country and on the way the defence ministry is structured. If Service chiefs are to be held accountable to parliamentary committees, then they must also be assigned the requisite authority and powers. It is equally important that the defence ministry is re-structured in a way whereby officers of the armed forces are made part of the decision making process, made aware of the intricacies of civil government functioning, and consequently, be institutionally held accountable.